Tag Archives: chemistry

Hedy Lamarr documentary

It was the tech community which brought Hedy Lamarr’s scientific and technical accomplishments to light in the 1990s. The movie actress was better known for other aspects of her work and life.

She was the first actress to portray an orgasm on screen, the movie was Ecstasy (in English), the year was 1933; and, Hedy Lamarr was 18 years-old. Shortly after the film was released, Lamarr, of Jewish descent, married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian with ties to fascist regimes led by Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. A controlling and jealous man, she eventually escaped Mandl in the middle of the night with all the jewels she could pack on her person.

That’s just the prelude for a documentary celebrating the extraordinary Lamarr. ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ (directed and written by Alexandra Dean) has been making its way around the festival circuit for the last several months. I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2017 and the house was packed.

(If you missed it on the festival circuit, don’t worry. It’s being broadcast by most, if not all PBS stations, on May 18, 2018 as part of the American Masters series.)

*ETA video clips May 18, 2018 at 0945 hours PDT*

Over the last few decades there’s been a major reevaluation of Lamarr’s place in history. She was dangerous not just for her beauty (bombshell) but also in the way that people who aren’t easily categorized are always dangerous.

Before she did her ground-breaking work as an inventor and after her dramatic middle-of-the-night escape, Lamarr made her way to London* where she sought out Louis B. Mayer in 1937 and turned down his offer of a contract at MGM. Not enough money. Instead, she booked passage n a ship bound for New York City which was also carrying Louis B. Mayer and his wife. By the time they landed, Lamarr had gotten a contract that she was happy with and a brand-new name. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler effectively became Hedy Lamarr for the rest of her life.

Lamarr’s famous quote: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” provides an interesting juxtaposition with her role (along with avant-garde musician and composer George Antheil) in developing a technology that laid the basis for secure Wi-Fi, GPS (global positioning system), and Bluetooth. Or as some of us think of it, life in the 21st century.

She claimed to have advised Howard Hughes on the design for the of his airplanes; she was inspired by the wings on birds and fins on fish. She created a tablet that when reconstituted with water became a carbonated drink (according to Lamarr, it was not very tasty). There was also her influence in the field of plastic surgery. Those incisions that are in hard-to-see places? That was at Hedy Lamarr’s suggestion.

Her inventions spanned electrical engineering (telecommunications), bio-inspired engineering and physics (airplane wings), chemistry (the drink tablets), and plastic surgery. That’s an extraordinary range and there’s more. She created her own movie production company in 1945/46* (it was a failure) and was instrumental in designing a resort (she was never fairly recompensed for that).

She suffered throughout her life in various ways.The US government shafted her and George Antheil by politely refusing their invention in 1942. To be fair, it would have been difficult to use with the technology available at the time but somebody must have recognized its potential. At some point in the 1950s the US Navy developed the technology (without informing either inventor or compensating them as had been their deal).

There was more, her achievements were ignored or, worse, attributed to anyone except her the better part of her life; the Hollywood factory is not kind to older actresses, especially those of Lamarr’s generation; and she made serious mistakes.

Ironically, one of those mistakes involved plastic surgery. It’s hard to know what the effect will be on television but in the movie house, there was a big gasp when some footage from her last years was shown. She’s not monstrous but after an hour or more of footage from her ‘glamorous’ years, it’s a bit of a shock. If you can see past the effects of some ‘bad’ plastic surgery, you’ll find a woman who despite everything kept on. She never gave up and there’s a kind of beauty in that act which is indelible in a way that her physical beauty could never hope to be.

The documentary is fascinating not only for what it includes but for what it doesn’t. You’d think she’d never had a woman friend in her life but according to J. E. Smyth’s 2018 book ‘Nobody’s Girl Friday; The Women Who Ran Hollywood’, she and Bette Davis were good friends. There’s also mention of her poverty but none of her late life litigiousness and the $3M estate she left when she died in 2000.*** At a guess, having learned from the debacle with the US Navy (she could have sued but didn’t realize she had the right), she litigated her way into some financial health. As for the ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ movements which have formed since the Hollywood sex scandals of 2017 – ????, one can only imagine what Lamarr’s stories might have been.

If you have the time, see the documentary. Lamarr was a helluva dame.

*’Paris’ corrected to ‘London’ and ‘1945’ changed to 1945/46′ on on May 21, 2018 after watching the PBS broadcast of the documentary on May 18, 2018.

.***ETA May 21, 2018: See the Hedy Lamarr Wikipedia entry for more about her estate and other details of her life.***

The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (2 of 2)

Taking up from where I left off with my comments on Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R and D in Canada or as I prefer to call it the Third assessment of Canadas S&T (science and technology) and R&D (research and development). (Part 1 for anyone who missed it).

Is it possible to get past Hedy?

Interestingly (to me anyway), one of our R&D strengths, the visual and performing arts, features sectors where a preponderance of people are dedicated to creating culture in Canada and don’t spend a lot of time trying to make money so they can retire before the age of 40 as so many of our start-up founders do. (Retiring before the age of 40 just reminded me of Hollywood actresses {Hedy] who found and still do find that work was/is hard to come by after that age. You may be able but I’m not sure I can get past Hedy.) Perhaps our business people (start-up founders) could take a leaf out of the visual and performing arts handbook? Or, not. There is another question.

Does it matter if we continue to be a ‘branch plant’ economy? Somebody once posed that question to me when I was grumbling that our start-ups never led to larger businesses and acted more like incubators (which could describe our R&D as well),. He noted that Canadians have a pretty good standard of living and we’ve been running things this way for over a century and it seems to work for us. Is it that bad? I didn’t have an  answer for him then and I don’t have one now but I think it’s a useful question to ask and no one on this (2018) expert panel or the previous expert panel (2013) seems to have asked.

I appreciate that the panel was constrained by the questions given by the government but given how they snuck in a few items that technically speaking were not part of their remit, I’m thinking they might have gone just a bit further. The problem with answering the questions as asked is that if you’ve got the wrong questions, your answers will be garbage (GIGO; garbage in, garbage out) or, as is said, where science is concerned, it’s the quality of your questions.

On that note, I would have liked to know more about the survey of top-cited researchers. I think looking at the questions could have been quite illuminating and I would have liked some information on from where (geographically and area of specialization) they got most of their answers. In keeping with past practice (2012 assessment published in 2013), there is no additional information offered about the survey questions or results. Still, there was this (from the report released April 10, 2018; Note: There may be some difference between the formatting seen here and that seen in the document),

3.1.2 International Perceptions of Canadian Research
As with the 2012 S&T report, the CCA commissioned a survey of top-cited researchers’ perceptions of Canada’s research strength in their field or subfield relative to that of other countries (Section 1.3.2). Researchers were asked to identify the top five countries in their field and subfield of expertise: 36% of respondents (compared with 37% in the 2012 survey) from across all fields of research rated Canada in the top five countries in their field (Figure B.1 and Table B.1 in the appendix). Canada ranks fourth out of all countries, behind the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, and ahead of France. This represents a change of about 1 percentage point from the overall results of the 2012 S&T survey. There was a 4 percentage point decrease in how often France is ranked among the top five countries; the ordering of the top five countries, however, remains the same.

When asked to rate Canada’s research strength among other advanced countries in their field of expertise, 72% (4,005) of respondents rated Canadian research as “strong” (corresponding to a score of 5 or higher on a 7-point scale) compared with 68% in the 2012 S&T survey (Table 3.4). [pp. 40-41 Print; pp. 78-70 PDF]

Before I forget, there was mention of the international research scene,

Growth in research output, as estimated by number of publications, varies considerably for the 20 top countries. Brazil, China, India, Iran, and South Korea have had the most significant increases in publication output over the last 10 years. [emphases mine] In particular, the dramatic increase in China’s output means that it is closing the gap with the United States. In 2014, China’s output was 95% of that of the United States, compared with 26% in 2003. [emphasis mine]

Table 3.2 shows the Growth Index (GI), a measure of the rate at which the research output for a given country changed between 2003 and 2014, normalized by the world growth rate. If a country’s growth in research output is higher than the world average, the GI score is greater than 1.0. For example, between 2003 and 2014, China’s GI score was 1.50 (i.e., 50% greater than the world average) compared with 0.88 and 0.80 for Canada and the United States, respectively. Note that the dramatic increase in publication production of emerging economies such as China and India has had a negative impact on Canada’s rank and GI score (see CCA, 2016).

As long as I’ve been blogging (10 years), the international research community (in particular the US) has been looking over its shoulder at China.

Patents and intellectual property

As an inventor, Hedy got more than one patent. Much has been made of the fact that  despite an agreement, the US Navy did not pay her or her partner (George Antheil) for work that would lead to significant military use (apparently, it was instrumental in the Bay of Pigs incident, for those familiar with that bit of history), GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, and more.

Some comments about patents. They are meant to encourage more innovation by ensuring that creators/inventors get paid for their efforts .This is true for a set time period and when it’s over, other people get access and can innovate further. It’s not intended to be a lifelong (or inheritable) source of income. The issue in Lamarr’s case is that the navy developed the technology during the patent’s term without telling either her or her partner so, of course, they didn’t need to compensate them despite the original agreement. They really should have paid her and Antheil.

The current patent situation, particularly in the US, is vastly different from the original vision. These days patents are often used as weapons designed to halt innovation. One item that should be noted is that the Canadian federal budget indirectly addressed their misuse (from my March 16, 2018 posting),

Surprisingly, no one else seems to have mentioned a new (?) intellectual property strategy introduced in the document (from Chapter 2: Progress; scroll down about 80% of the way, Note: The formatting has been changed),

Budget 2018 proposes measures in support of a new Intellectual Property Strategy to help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property, and get better access to shared intellectual property.

What Is a Patent Collective?
A Patent Collective is a way for firms to share, generate, and license or purchase intellectual property. The collective approach is intended to help Canadian firms ensure a global “freedom to operate”, mitigate the risk of infringing a patent, and aid in the defence of a patent infringement suit.

Budget 2018 proposes to invest $85.3 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, with $10 million per year ongoing, in support of the strategy. The Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will bring forward the full details of the strategy in the coming months, including the following initiatives to increase the intellectual property literacy of Canadian entrepreneurs, and to reduce costs and create incentives for Canadian businesses to leverage their intellectual property:

  • To better enable firms to access and share intellectual property, the Government proposes to provide $30 million in 2019–20 to pilot a Patent Collective. This collective will work with Canada’s entrepreneurs to pool patents, so that small and medium-sized firms have better access to the critical intellectual property they need to grow their businesses.
  • To support the development of intellectual property expertise and legal advice for Canada’s innovation community, the Government proposes to provide $21.5 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. This funding will improve access for Canadian entrepreneurs to intellectual property legal clinics at universities. It will also enable the creation of a team in the federal government to work with Canadian entrepreneurs to help them develop tailored strategies for using their intellectual property and expanding into international markets.
  • To support strategic intellectual property tools that enable economic growth, Budget 2018 also proposes to provide $33.8 million over five years, starting in 2018–19, to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, including $4.5 million for the creation of an intellectual property marketplace. This marketplace will be a one-stop, online listing of public sector-owned intellectual property available for licensing or sale to reduce transaction costs for businesses and researchers, and to improve Canadian entrepreneurs’ access to public sector-owned intellectual property.

The Government will also consider further measures, including through legislation, in support of the new intellectual property strategy.

Helping All Canadians Harness Intellectual Property
Intellectual property is one of our most valuable resources, and every Canadian business owner should understand how to protect and use it.

To better understand what groups of Canadians are benefiting the most from intellectual property, Budget 2018 proposes to provide Statistics Canada with $2 million over three years to conduct an intellectual property awareness and use survey. This survey will help identify how Canadians understand and use intellectual property, including groups that have traditionally been less likely to use intellectual property, such as women and Indigenous entrepreneurs. The results of the survey should help the Government better meet the needs of these groups through education and awareness initiatives.

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office will also increase the number of education and awareness initiatives that are delivered in partnership with business, intermediaries and academia to ensure Canadians better understand, integrate and take advantage of intellectual property when building their business strategies. This will include targeted initiatives to support underrepresented groups.

Finally, Budget 2018 also proposes to invest $1 million over five years to enable representatives of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples to participate in discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization related to traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, an important form of intellectual property.

It’s not wholly clear what they mean by ‘intellectual property’. The focus seems to be on  patents as they are the only intellectual property (as opposed to copyright and trademarks) singled out in the budget. As for how the ‘patent collective’ is going to meet all its objectives, this budget supplies no clarity on the matter. On the plus side, I’m glad to see that indigenous peoples’ knowledge is being acknowledged as “an important form of intellectual property” and I hope the discussions at the World Intellectual Property Organization are fruitful.

As for the patent situation in Canada (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Over the past decade, the Canadian patent flow in all technical sectors has consistently decreased. Patent flow provides a partial picture of how patents in Canada are exploited. A negative flow represents a deficit of patented inventions owned by Canadian assignees versus the number of patented inventions created by Canadian inventors. The patent flow for all Canadian patents decreased from about −0.04 in 2003 to −0.26 in 2014 (Figure 4.7). This means that there is an overall deficit of 26% of patent ownership in Canada. In other words, fewer patents were owned by Canadian institutions than were invented in Canada.

This is a significant change from 2003 when the deficit was only 4%. The drop is consistent across all technical sectors in the past 10 years, with Mechanical Engineering falling the least, and Electrical Engineering the most (Figure 4.7). At the technical field level, the patent flow dropped significantly in Digital Communication and Telecommunications. For example, the Digital Communication patent flow fell from 0.6 in 2003 to −0.2 in 2014. This fall could be partially linked to Nortel’s US$4.5 billion patent sale [emphasis mine] to the Rockstar consortium (which included Apple, BlackBerry, Ericsson, Microsoft, and Sony) (Brickley, 2011). Food Chemistry and Microstructural [?] and Nanotechnology both also showed a significant drop in patent flow. [p. 83 Print; p. 121 PDF]

Despite a fall in the number of parents for ‘Digital Communication’, we’re still doing well according to statistics elsewhere in this report. Is it possible that patents aren’t that big a deal? Of course, it’s also possible that we are enjoying the benefits of past work and will miss out on future work. (Note: A video of the April 10, 2018 report presentation by Max Blouw features him saying something like that.)

One last note, Nortel died many years ago. Disconcertingly, this report, despite more than one reference to Nortel, never mentions the company’s demise.

Boxed text

While the expert panel wasn’t tasked to answer certain types of questions, as I’ve noted earlier they managed to sneak in a few items.  One of the strategies they used was putting special inserts into text boxes including this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Box 4.2
The FinTech Revolution

Financial services is a key industry in Canada. In 2015, the industry accounted for 4.4%

of Canadia jobs and about 7% of Canadian GDP (Burt, 2016). Toronto is the second largest financial services hub in North America and one of the most vibrant research hubs in FinTech. Since 2010, more than 100 start-up companies have been founded in Canada, attracting more than $1 billion in investment (Moffatt, 2016). In 2016 alone, venture-backed investment in Canadian financial technology companies grew by 35% to $137.7 million (Ho, 2017). The Toronto Financial Services Alliance estimates that there are approximately 40,000 ICT specialists working in financial services in Toronto alone.

AI, blockchain, [emphasis mine] and other results of ICT research provide the basis for several transformative FinTech innovations including, for example, decentralized transaction ledgers, cryptocurrencies (e.g., bitcoin), and AI-based risk assessment and fraud detection. These innovations offer opportunities to develop new markets for established financial services firms, but also provide entry points for technology firms to develop competing service offerings, increasing competition in the financial services industry. In response, many financial services companies are increasing their investments in FinTech companies (Breznitz et al., 2015). By their own account, the big five banks invest more than $1 billion annually in R&D of advanced software solutions, including AI-based innovations (J. Thompson, personal communication, 2016). The banks are also increasingly investing in university research and collaboration with start-up companies. For instance, together with several large insurance and financial management firms, all big five banks have invested in the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Kolm, 2017).

I’m glad to see the mention of blockchain while AI (artificial intelligence) is an area where we have innovated (from the report released April 10, 2018),

AI has attracted researchers and funding since the 1960s; however, there were periods of stagnation in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes referred to as the “AI winter.” During this period, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), under the direction of Fraser Mustard, started supporting AI research with a decade-long program called Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Society, [emphasis mine] which was active from 1983 to 1994. In 2004, a new program called Neural Computation and Adaptive Perception was initiated and renewed twice in 2008 and 2014 under the title, Learning in Machines and Brains. Through these programs, the government provided long-term, predictable support for high- risk research that propelled Canadian researchers to the forefront of global AI development. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Canadian research output and impact on AI were second only to that of the United States (CIFAR, 2016). NSERC has also been an early supporter of AI. According to its searchable grant database, NSERC has given funding to research projects on AI since at least 1991–1992 (the earliest searchable year) (NSERC, 2017a).

The University of Toronto, the University of Alberta, and the Université de Montréal have emerged as international centres for research in neural networks and deep learning, with leading experts such as Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio. Recently, these locations have expanded into vibrant hubs for research in AI applications with a diverse mix of specialized research institutes, accelerators, and start-up companies, and growing investment by major international players in AI development, such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. Many highly influential AI researchers today are either from Canada or have at some point in their careers worked at a Canadian institution or with Canadian scholars.

As international opportunities in AI research and the ICT industry have grown, many of Canada’s AI pioneers have been drawn to research institutions and companies outside of Canada. According to the OECD, Canada’s share of patents in AI declined from 2.4% in 2000 to 2005 to 2% in 2010 to 2015. Although Canada is the sixth largest producer of top-cited scientific publications related to machine learning, firms headquartered in Canada accounted for only 0.9% of all AI-related inventions from 2012 to 2014 (OECD, 2017c). Canadian AI researchers, however, remain involved in the core nodes of an expanding international network of AI researchers, most of whom continue to maintain ties with their home institutions. Compared with their international peers, Canadian AI researchers are engaged in international collaborations far more often than would be expected by Canada’s level of research output, with Canada ranking fifth in collaboration. [p. 97-98 Print; p. 135-136 PDF]

The only mention of robotics seems to be here in this section and it’s only in passing. This is a bit surprising given its global importance. I wonder if robotics has been somehow hidden inside the term artificial intelligence, although sometimes it’s vice versa with robot being used to describe artificial intelligence. I’m noticing this trend of assuming the terms are synonymous or interchangeable not just in Canadian publications but elsewhere too.  ’nuff said.

Getting back to the matter at hand, t he report does note that patenting (technometric data) is problematic (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The limitations of technometric data stem largely from their restricted applicability across areas of R&D. Patenting, as a strategy for IP management, is similarly limited in not being equally relevant across industries. Trends in patenting can also reflect commercial pressures unrelated to R&D activities, such as defensive or strategic patenting practices. Finally, taxonomies for assessing patents are not aligned with bibliometric taxonomies, though links can be drawn to research publications through the analysis of patent citations. [p. 105 Print; p. 143 PDF]

It’s interesting to me that they make reference to many of the same issues that I mention but they seem to forget and don’t use that information in their conclusions.

There is one other piece of boxed text I want to highlight (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Box 6.3
Open Science: An Emerging Approach to Create New Linkages

Open Science is an umbrella term to describe collaborative and open approaches to
undertaking science, which can be powerful catalysts of innovation. This includes
the development of open collaborative networks among research performers, such
as the private sector, and the wider distribution of research that usually results when
restrictions on use are removed. Such an approach triggers faster translation of ideas
among research partners and moves the boundaries of pre-competitive research to
later, applied stages of research. With research results freely accessible, companies
can focus on developing new products and processes that can be commercialized.

Two Canadian organizations exemplify the development of such models. In June
2017, Genome Canada, the Ontario government, and pharmaceutical companies
invested $33 million in the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) (Genome Canada,
2017). Formed in 2004, the SGC is at the forefront of the Canadian open science
movement and has contributed to many key research advancements towards new
treatments (SGC, 2018). McGill University’s Montréal Neurological Institute and
Hospital has also embraced the principles of open science. Since 2016, it has been
sharing its research results with the scientific community without restriction, with
the objective of expanding “the impact of brain research and accelerat[ing] the
discovery of ground-breaking therapies to treat patients suffering from a wide range
of devastating neurological diseases” (neuro, n.d.).

This is exciting stuff and I’m happy the panel featured it. (I wrote about the Montréal Neurological Institute initiative in a Jan. 22, 2016 posting.)

More than once, the report notes the difficulties with using bibliometric and technometric data as measures of scientific achievement and progress and open science (along with its cousins, open data and open access) are contributing to the difficulties as James Somers notes in his April 5, 2018 article ‘The Scientific Paper is Obsolete’ for The Atlantic (Note: Links have been removed),

The scientific paper—the actual form of it—was one of the enabling inventions of modernity. Before it was developed in the 1600s, results were communicated privately in letters, ephemerally in lectures, or all at once in books. There was no public forum for incremental advances. By making room for reports of single experiments or minor technical advances, journals made the chaos of science accretive. Scientists from that point forward became like the social insects: They made their progress steadily, as a buzzing mass.

The earliest papers were in some ways more readable than papers are today. They were less specialized, more direct, shorter, and far less formal. Calculus had only just been invented. Entire data sets could fit in a table on a single page. What little “computation” contributed to the results was done by hand and could be verified in the same way.

The more sophisticated science becomes, the harder it is to communicate results. Papers today are longer than ever and full of jargon and symbols. They depend on chains of computer programs that generate data, and clean up data, and plot data, and run statistical models on data. These programs tend to be both so sloppily written and so central to the results that it’s [sic] contributed to a replication crisis, or put another way, a failure of the paper to perform its most basic task: to report what you’ve actually discovered, clearly enough that someone else can discover it for themselves.

Perhaps the paper itself is to blame. Scientific methods evolve now at the speed of software; the skill most in demand among physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, even anthropologists and research psychologists, is facility with programming languages and “data science” packages. And yet the basic means of communicating scientific results hasn’t changed for 400 years. Papers may be posted online, but they’re still text and pictures on a page.

What would you get if you designed the scientific paper from scratch today? A little while ago I spoke to Bret Victor, a researcher who worked at Apple on early user-interface prototypes for the iPad and now runs his own lab in Oakland, California, that studies the future of computing. Victor has long been convinced that scientists haven’t yet taken full advantage of the computer. “It’s not that different than looking at the printing press, and the evolution of the book,” he said. After Gutenberg, the printing press was mostly used to mimic the calligraphy in bibles. It took nearly 100 years of technical and conceptual improvements to invent the modern book. “There was this entire period where they had the new technology of printing, but they were just using it to emulate the old media.”Victor gestured at what might be possible when he redesigned a journal article by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks.” He chose it both because it’s one of the most highly cited papers in all of science and because it’s a model of clear exposition. (Strogatz is best known for writing the beloved “Elements of Math” column for The New York Times.)

The Watts-Strogatz paper described its key findings the way most papers do, with text, pictures, and mathematical symbols. And like most papers, these findings were still hard to swallow, despite the lucid prose. The hardest parts were the ones that described procedures or algorithms, because these required the reader to “play computer” in their head, as Victor put it, that is, to strain to maintain a fragile mental picture of what was happening with each step of the algorithm.Victor’s redesign interleaved the explanatory text with little interactive diagrams that illustrated each step. In his version, you could see the algorithm at work on an example. You could even control it yourself….

For anyone interested in the evolution of how science is conducted and communicated, Somers’ article is a fascinating and in depth look at future possibilities.

Subregional R&D

I didn’t find this quite as compelling as the last time and that may be due to the fact that there’s less information and I think the 2012 report was the first to examine the Canadian R&D scene with a subregional (in their case, provinces) lens. On a high note, this report also covers cities (!) and regions, as well as, provinces.

Here’s the conclusion (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Ontario leads Canada in R&D investment and performance. The province accounts for almost half of R&D investment and personnel, research publications and collaborations, and patents. R&D activity in Ontario produces high-quality publications in each of Canada’s five R&D strengths, reflecting both the quantity and quality of universities in the province. Quebec lags Ontario in total investment, publications, and patents, but performs as well (citations) or better (R&D intensity) by some measures. Much like Ontario, Quebec researchers produce impactful publications across most of Canada’s five R&D strengths. Although it invests an amount similar to that of Alberta, British Columbia does so at a significantly higher intensity. British Columbia also produces more highly cited publications and patents, and is involved in more international research collaborations. R&D in British Columbia and Alberta clusters around Vancouver and Calgary in areas such as physics and ICT and in clinical medicine and energy, respectively. [emphasis mine] Smaller but vibrant R&D communities exist in the Prairies and Atlantic Canada [also referred to as the Maritime provinces or Maritimes] (and, to a lesser extent, in the Territories) in natural resource industries.

Globally, as urban populations expand exponentially, cities are likely to drive innovation and wealth creation at an increasing rate in the future. In Canada, R&D activity clusters around five large cities: Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary. These five cities create patents and high-tech companies at nearly twice the rate of other Canadian cities. They also account for half of clusters in the services sector, and many in advanced manufacturing.

Many clusters relate to natural resources and long-standing areas of economic and research strength. Natural resource clusters have emerged around the location of resources, such as forestry in British Columbia, oil and gas in Alberta, agriculture in Ontario, mining in Quebec, and maritime resources in Atlantic Canada. The automotive, plastics, and steel industries have the most individual clusters as a result of their economic success in Windsor, Hamilton, and Oshawa. Advanced manufacturing industries tend to be more concentrated, often located near specialized research universities. Strong connections between academia and industry are often associated with these clusters. R&D activity is distributed across the country, varying both between and within regions. It is critical to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion from this fact. This distribution does not imply the existence of a problem that needs to be remedied. Rather, it signals the benefits of diverse innovation systems, with differentiation driven by the needs of and resources available in each province. [pp.  132-133 Print; pp. 170-171 PDF]

Intriguingly, there’s no mention that in British Columbia (BC), there are leading areas of research: Visual & Performing Arts, Psychology & Cognitive Sciences, and Clinical Medicine (according to the table on p. 117 Print, p. 153 PDF).

As I said and hinted earlier, we’ve got brains; they’re just not the kind of brains that command respect.

Final comments

My hat’s off to the expert panel and staff of the Council of Canadian Academies. Combining two previous reports into one could not have been easy. As well, kudos to their attempts to broaden the discussion by mentioning initiative such as open science and for emphasizing the problems with bibliometrics, technometrics, and other measures. I have covered only parts of this assessment, (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada), there’s a lot more to it including a substantive list of reference materials (bibliography).

While I have argued that perhaps the situation isn’t quite as bad as the headlines and statistics may suggest, there are some concerning trends for Canadians but we have to acknowledge that many countries have stepped up their research game and that’s good for all of us. You don’t get better at anything unless you work with and play with others who are better than you are. For example, both India and Italy surpassed us in numbers of published research papers. We slipped from 7th place to 9th. Thank you, Italy and India. (And, Happy ‘Italian Research in the World Day’ on April 15, 2018, the day’s inaugural year. In Italian: Piano Straordinario “Vivere all’Italiana” – Giornata della ricerca Italiana nel mondo.)

Unfortunately, the reading is harder going than previous R&D assessments in the CCA catalogue. And in the end, I can’t help thinking we’re just a little bit like Hedy Lamarr. Not really appreciated in all of our complexities although the expert panel and staff did try from time to time. Perhaps the government needs to find better ways of asking the questions.

***ETA April 12, 2018 at 1500 PDT: Talking about missing the obvious! I’ve been ranting on about how research strength in visual and performing arts and in philosophy and theology, etc. is perfectly fine and could lead to ‘traditional’ science breakthroughs without underlining the point by noting that Antheil was a musician, Lamarr was as an actress and they set the foundation for work by electrical engineers (or people with that specialty) for their signature work leading to WiFi, etc.***

There is, by the way, a Hedy-Canada connection. In 1998, she sued Canadian software company Corel, for its unauthorized use of her image on their Corel Draw 8 product packaging. She won.

More stuff

For those who’d like to see and hear the April 10, 2017 launch for “Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada” or the Third Assessment as I think of it, go here.

The report can be found here.

For anyone curious about ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ to be broadcast on May 18, 2018 as part of PBS’s American Masters series, there’s this trailer,

For the curious, I did find out more about the Hedy Lamarr and Corel Draw. John Lettice’s December 2, 1998 article The Rgister describes the suit and her subsequent victory in less than admiring terms,

Our picture doesn’t show glamorous actress Hedy Lamarr, who yesterday [Dec. 1, 1998] came to a settlement with Corel over the use of her image on Corel’s packaging. But we suppose that following the settlement we could have used a picture of Corel’s packaging. Lamarr sued Corel earlier this year over its use of a CorelDraw image of her. The picture had been produced by John Corkery, who was 1996 Best of Show winner of the Corel World Design Contest. Corel now seems to have come to an undisclosed settlement with her, which includes a five-year exclusive (oops — maybe we can’t use the pack-shot then) licence to use “the lifelike vector illustration of Hedy Lamarr on Corel’s graphic software packaging”. Lamarr, bless ‘er, says she’s looking forward to the continued success of Corel Corporation,  …

There’s this excerpt from a Sept. 21, 2015 posting (a pictorial essay of Lamarr’s life) by Shahebaz Khan on The Blaze Blog,

6. CorelDRAW:
For several years beginning in 1997, the boxes of Corel DRAW’s software suites were graced by a large Corel-drawn image of Lamarr. The picture won Corel DRAW’s yearly software suite cover design contest in 1996. Lamarr sued Corel for using the image without her permission. Corel countered that she did not own rights to the image. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement in 1998.

There’s also a Nov. 23, 1998 Corel Draw 8 product review by Mike Gorman on mymac.com, which includes a screenshot of the packaging that precipitated the lawsuit. Once they settled, it seems Corel used her image at least one more time.

The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (1 of 2)

Before launching into the assessment, a brief explanation of my theme: Hedy Lamarr was considered to be one of the great beauties of her day,

“Ziegfeld Girl” Hedy Lamarr 1941 MGM *M.V.
Titles: Ziegfeld Girl
People: Hedy Lamarr
Image courtesy mptvimages.com [downloaded from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034415/mediaviewer/rm1566611456]

Aside from starring in Hollywood movies and, before that, movies in Europe, she was also an inventor and not just any inventor (from a Dec. 4, 2017 article by Laura Barnett for The Guardian), Note: Links have been removed,

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mercurial brilliance of Hedy Lamarr. Not only did the Vienna-born actor flee a loveless marriage to a Nazi arms dealer to secure a seven-year, $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, and become (probably) the first Hollywood star to simulate a female orgasm on screen – she also took time out to invent a device that would eventually revolutionise mobile communications.

As described in unprecedented detail by the American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his new book, Hedy’s Folly, Lamarr and her business partner, the composer George Antheil, were awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system”. It was meant for radio-guided torpedoes, and the pair gave to the US Navy. It languished in their files for decades before eventually becoming a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

(The article goes on to mention other celebrities [Marlon Brando, Barbara Cartland, Mark Twain, etc] and their inventions.)

Lamarr’s work as an inventor was largely overlooked until the 1990’s when the technology community turned her into a ‘cultish’ favourite and from there her reputation grew and acknowledgement increased culminating in Rhodes’ book and the documentary by Alexandra Dean, ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (to be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Masters series on May 18, 2018).

Canada as Hedy Lamarr

There are some parallels to be drawn between Canada’s S&T and R&D (science and technology; research and development) and Ms. Lamarr. Chief amongst them, we’re not always appreciated for our brains. Not even by people who are supposed to know better such as the experts on the panel for the ‘Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada’ (proper title: Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) from the Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.

A little history

Before exploring the comparison to Hedy Lamarr further, here’s a bit more about the history of this latest assessment from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), from the report released April 10, 2018,

This assessment of Canada’s performance indicators in science, technology, research, and innovation comes at an opportune time. The Government of Canada has expressed a renewed commitment in several tangible ways to this broad domain of activity including its Innovation and Skills Plan, the announcement of five superclusters, its appointment of a new Chief Science Advisor, and its request for the Fundamental Science Review. More specifically, the 2018 Federal Budget demonstrated the government’s strong commitment to research and innovation with historic investments in science.

The CCA has a decade-long history of conducting evidence-based assessments about Canada’s research and development activities, producing seven assessments of relevance:

The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2006) [emphasis mine]
•Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (2009)
•Catalyzing Canada’s Digital Economy (2010)
•Informing Research Choices: Indicators and Judgment (2012)
The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) [emphasis mine]
The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013) [emphasis mine]
•Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness (2013)

Using similar methods and metrics to those in The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) and The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013), this assessment tells a similar and familiar story: Canada has much to be proud of, with world-class researchers in many domains of knowledge, but the rest of the world is not standing still. Our peers are also producing high quality results, and many countries are making significant commitments to supporting research and development that will position them to better leverage their strengths to compete globally. Canada will need to take notice as it determines how best to take action. This assessment provides valuable material for that conversation to occur, whether it takes place in the lab or the legislature, the bench or the boardroom. We also hope it will be used to inform public discussion. [p. ix Print, p. 11 PDF]

This latest assessment succeeds the general 2006 and 2012 reports, which were mostly focused on academic research, and combines it with an assessment of industrial research, which was previously separate. Also, this third assessment’s title (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) makes what was previously quietly declared in the text, explicit from the cover onwards. It’s all about competition, despite noises such as the 2017 Naylor report (Review of fundamental research) about the importance of fundamental research.

One other quick comment, I did wonder in my July 1, 2016 posting (featuring the announcement of the third assessment) how combining two assessments would impact the size of the expert panel and the size of the final report,

Given the size of the 2012 assessment of science and technology at 232 pp. (PDF) and the 2013 assessment of industrial research and development at 220 pp. (PDF) with two expert panels, the imagination boggles at the potential size of the 2016 expert panel and of the 2016 assessment combining the two areas.

I got my answer with regard to the panel as noted in my Oct. 20, 2016 update (which featured a list of the members),

A few observations, given the size of the task, this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

The imbalance I noted then was addressed, somewhat, with the selection of the reviewers (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The CCA wishes to thank the following individuals for their review of this report:

Ronald Burnett, C.M., O.B.C., RCA, Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des
lettres, President and Vice-Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design
(Vancouver, BC)

Michelle N. Chretien, Director, Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design
Technologies, Sheridan College; Former Program and Business Development
Manager, Electronic Materials, Xerox Research Centre of Canada (Brampton,
ON)

Lisa Crossley, CEO, Reliq Health Technologies, Inc. (Ancaster, ON)
Natalie Dakers, Founding President and CEO, Accel-Rx Health Sciences
Accelerator (Vancouver, BC)

Fred Gault, Professorial Fellow, United Nations University-MERIT (Maastricht,
Netherlands)

Patrick D. Germain, Principal Engineering Specialist, Advanced Aerodynamics,
Bombardier Aerospace (Montréal, QC)

Robert Brian Haynes, O.C., FRSC, FCAHS, Professor Emeritus, DeGroote
School of Medicine, McMaster University (Hamilton, ON)

Susan Holt, Chief, Innovation and Business Relationships, Government of
New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB)

Pierre A. Mohnen, Professor, United Nations University-MERIT and Maastricht
University (Maastricht, Netherlands)

Peter J. M. Nicholson, C.M., Retired; Former and Founding President and
CEO, Council of Canadian Academies (Annapolis Royal, NS)

Raymond G. Siemens, Distinguished Professor, English and Computer Science
and Former Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing, University of
Victoria (Victoria, BC) [pp. xii- xiv Print; pp. 15-16 PDF]

The proportion of women to men as reviewers jumped up to about 36% (4 of 11 reviewers) and there are two reviewers from the Maritime provinces. As usual, reviewers external to Canada were from Europe. Although this time, they came from Dutch institutions rather than UK or German institutions. Interestingly and unusually, there was no one from a US institution. When will they start using reviewers from other parts of the world?

As for the report itself, it is 244 pp. (PDF). (For the really curious, I have a  December 15, 2016 post featuring my comments on the preliminary data for the third assessment.)

To sum up, they had a lean expert panel tasked with bringing together two inquiries and two reports. I imagine that was daunting. Good on them for finding a way to make it manageable.

Bibliometrics, patents, and a survey

I wish more attention had been paid to some of the issues around open science, open access, and open data, which are changing how science is being conducted. (I have more about this from an April 5, 2018 article by James Somers for The Atlantic but more about that later.) If I understand rightly, they may not have been possible due to the nature of the questions posed by the government when requested the assessment.

As was done for the second assessment, there is an acknowledgement that the standard measures/metrics (bibliometrics [no. of papers published, which journals published them; number of times papers were cited] and technometrics [no. of patent applications, etc.] of scientific accomplishment and progress are not the best and new approaches need to be developed and adopted (from the report released April 10, 2018),

It is also worth noting that the Panel itself recognized the limits that come from using traditional historic metrics. Additional approaches will be needed the next time this assessment is done. [p. ix Print; p. 11 PDF]

For the second assessment and as a means of addressing some of the problems with metrics, the panel decided to take a survey which the panel for the third assessment has also done (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The Panel relied on evidence from multiple sources to address its charge, including a literature review and data extracted from statistical agencies and organizations such as Statistics Canada and the OECD. For international comparisons, the Panel focused on OECD countries along with developing countries that are among the top 20 producers of peer-reviewed research publications (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Iran, Turkey). In addition to the literature review, two primary research approaches informed the Panel’s assessment:
•a comprehensive bibliometric and technometric analysis of Canadian research publications and patents; and,
•a survey of top-cited researchers around the world.

Despite best efforts to collect and analyze up-to-date information, one of the Panel’s findings is that data limitations continue to constrain the assessment of R&D activity and excellence in Canada. This is particularly the case with industrial R&D and in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Data on industrial R&D activity continue to suffer from time lags for some measures, such as internationally comparable data on R&D intensity by sector and industry. These data also rely on industrial categories (i.e., NAICS and ISIC codes) that can obscure important trends, particularly in the services sector, though Statistics Canada’s recent revisions to how this data is reported have improved this situation. There is also a lack of internationally comparable metrics relating to R&D outcomes and impacts, aside from those based on patents.

For the social sciences, arts, and humanities, metrics based on journal articles and other indexed publications provide an incomplete and uneven picture of research contributions. The expansion of bibliometric databases and methodological improvements such as greater use of web-based metrics, including paper views/downloads and social media references, will support ongoing, incremental improvements in the availability and accuracy of data. However, future assessments of R&D in Canada may benefit from more substantive integration of expert review, capable of factoring in different types of research outputs (e.g., non-indexed books) and impacts (e.g., contributions to communities or impacts on public policy). The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity. It is vital that such contributions are better measured and assessed. [p. xvii Print; p. 19 PDF]

My reading: there’s a problem and we’re not going to try and fix it this time. Good luck to those who come after us. As for this line: “The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity.” Did no one explain that when you use ‘no doubt’, you are introducing doubt? It’s a cousin to ‘don’t take this the wrong way’ and ‘I don’t mean to be rude but …’ .

Good news

This is somewhat encouraging (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada’s international reputation for its capacity to participate in cutting-edge R&D is strong, with 60% of top-cited researchers surveyed internationally indicating that Canada hosts world-leading infrastructure or programs in their fields. This share increased by four percentage points between 2012 and 2017. Canada continues to benefit from a highly educated population and deep pools of research skills and talent. Its population has the highest level of educational attainment in the OECD in the proportion of the population with
a post-secondary education. However, among younger cohorts (aged 25 to 34), Canada has fallen behind Japan and South Korea. The number of researchers per capita in Canada is on a par with that of other developed countries, andincreased modestly between 2004 and 2012. Canada’s output of PhD graduates has also grown in recent years, though it remains low in per capita terms relative to many OECD countries. [pp. xvii-xviii; pp. 19-20]

Don’t let your head get too big

Most of the report observes that our international standing is slipping in various ways such as this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

In contrast, the number of R&D personnel employed in Canadian businesses
dropped by 20% between 2008 and 2013. This is likely related to sustained and
ongoing decline in business R&D investment across the country. R&D as a share
of gross domestic product (GDP) has steadily declined in Canada since 2001,
and now stands well below the OECD average (Figure 1). As one of few OECD
countries with virtually no growth in total national R&D expenditures between
2006 and 2015, Canada would now need to more than double expenditures to
achieve an R&D intensity comparable to that of leading countries.

Low and declining business R&D expenditures are the dominant driver of this
trend; however, R&D spending in all sectors is implicated. Government R&D
expenditures declined, in real terms, over the same period. Expenditures in the
higher education sector (an indicator on which Canada has traditionally ranked
highly) are also increasing more slowly than the OECD average. Significant
erosion of Canada’s international competitiveness and capacity to participate
in R&D and innovation is likely to occur if this decline and underinvestment
continue.

Between 2009 and 2014, Canada produced 3.8% of the world’s research
publications, ranking ninth in the world. This is down from seventh place for
the 2003–2008 period. India and Italy have overtaken Canada although the
difference between Italy and Canada is small. Publication output in Canada grew
by 26% between 2003 and 2014, a growth rate greater than many developed
countries (including United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and
Japan), but below the world average, which reflects the rapid growth in China
and other emerging economies. Research output from the federal government,
particularly the National Research Council Canada, dropped significantly
between 2009 and 2014.(emphasis mine)  [p. xviii Print; p. 20 PDF]

For anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics,  2009 – 2014 were years during which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed the government. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected to form the government in late 2015.

During Harper’s years in government, the Conservatives were very interested in changing how the National Research Council of Canada operated and, if memory serves, the focus was on innovation over research. Consequently, the drop in their research output is predictable.

Given my interest in nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, this popped out (from the report released April 10, 2018),

When it comes to research on most enabling and strategic technologies, however, Canada lags other countries. Bibliometric evidence suggests that, with the exception of selected subfields in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as Medical Informatics and Personalized Medicine, Canada accounts for a relatively small share of the world’s research output for promising areas of technology development. This is particularly true for Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, and Materials science [emphasis mine]. Canada’s research impact, as reflected by citations, is also modest in these areas. Aside from Biotechnology, none of the other subfields in Enabling and Strategic Technologies has an ARC rank among the top five countries. Optoelectronics and photonics is the next highest ranked at 7th place, followed by Materials, and Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, both of which have a rank of 9th. Even in areas where Canadian researchers and institutions played a seminal role in early research (and retain a substantial research capacity), such as Artificial Intelligence and Regenerative Medicine, Canada has lost ground to other countries.

Arguably, our early efforts in artificial intelligence wouldn’t have garnered us much in the way of ranking and yet we managed some cutting edge work such as machine learning. I’m not suggesting the expert panel should have or could have found some way to measure these kinds of efforts but I’m wondering if there could have been some acknowledgement in the text of the report. I’m thinking a couple of sentences in a paragraph about the confounding nature of scientific research where areas that are ignored for years and even decades then become important (e.g., machine learning) but are not measured as part of scientific progress until after they are universally recognized.

Still, point taken about our diminishing returns in ’emerging’ technologies and sciences (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The impression that emerges from these data is sobering. With the exception of selected ICT subfields, such as Medical Informatics, bibliometric evidence does not suggest that Canada excels internationally in most of these research areas. In areas such as Nanotechnology and Materials science, Canada lags behind other countries in levels of research output and impact, and other countries are outpacing Canada’s publication growth in these areas — leading to declining shares of world publications. Even in research areas such as AI, where Canadian researchers and institutions played a foundational role, Canadian R&D activity is not keeping pace with that of other countries and some researchers trained in Canada have relocated to other countries (Section 4.4.1). There are isolated exceptions to these trends, but the aggregate data reviewed by this Panel suggest that Canada is not currently a world leader in research on most emerging technologies.

The Hedy Lamarr treatment

We have ‘good looks’ (arts and humanities) but not the kind of brains (physical sciences and engineering) that people admire (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphases mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world researchin these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected
in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

Couldn’t they have used a more buoyant tone? After all, science was known as ‘natural philosophy’ up until the 19th century. As for visual and performing arts, let’s include poetry as a performing and literary art (both have been the case historically and cross-culturally) and let’s also note that one of the great physics texts, (De rerum natura by Lucretius) was a multi-volume poem (from Lucretius’ Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed).

His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as “On the Nature of Things” or “On the Nature of the Universe”) transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism [the concept of atoms forming materials] and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy.[15] The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.[16]

Should you need more proof that the arts might have something to contribute to physical sciences, there’s this in my March 7, 2018 posting,

It’s not often you see research that combines biologically inspired engineering and a molecular biophysicist with a professional animator who worked at Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings film trilogy, etc.) Park Road Post film studio. An Oct. 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the project,

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, [emphasis mine] is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions to many of the world’s greatest problems. “I feel that there’s a huge disconnect between science and the public because it’s depicted as rote memorization in schools, when by definition, if you can memorize it, it’s not science,” says Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). [emphasis mine] “Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery, and fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that.”

“Not only is our physics-based simulation and animation system as good as other data-based modeling systems, it led to the new scientific insight [emphasis mine] that the limited motion of the dynein hinge focuses the energy released by ATP hydrolysis, which causes dynein’s shape change and drives microtubule sliding and axoneme motion,” says Ingber. “Additionally, while previous studies of dynein have revealed the molecule’s two different static conformations, our animation visually depicts one plausible way that the protein can transition between those shapes at atomic resolution, which is something that other simulations can’t do. The animation approach also allows us to visualize how rows of dyneins work in unison, like rowers pulling together in a boat, which is difficult using conventional scientific simulation approaches.”

It comes down to how we look at things. Yes, physical sciences and engineering are very important. If the report is to be believed we have a very highly educated population and according to PISA scores our students rank highly in mathematics, science, and reading skills. (For more information on Canada’s latest PISA scores from 2015 see this OECD page. As for PISA itself, it’s an OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] programme where 15-year-old students from around the world are tested on their reading, mathematics, and science skills, you can get some information from my Oct. 9, 2013 posting.)

Is it really so bad that we choose to apply those skills in fields other than the physical sciences and engineering? It’s a little bit like Hedy Lamarr’s problem except instead of being judged for our looks and having our inventions dismissed, we’re being judged for not applying ourselves to physical sciences and engineering and having our work in other closely aligned fields dismissed as less important.

Canada’s Industrial R&D: an oft-told, very sad story

Bemoaning the state of Canada’s industrial research and development efforts has been a national pastime as long as I can remember. Here’s this from the report released April 10, 2018,

There has been a sustained erosion in Canada’s industrial R&D capacity and competitiveness. Canada ranks 33rd among leading countries on an index assessing the magnitude, intensity, and growth of industrial R&D expenditures. Although Canada is the 11th largest spender, its industrial R&D intensity (0.9%) is only half the OECD average and total spending is declining (−0.7%). Compared with G7 countries, the Canadian portfolio of R&D investment is more concentrated in industries that are intrinsically not as R&D intensive. Canada invests more heavily than the G7 average in oil and gas, forestry, machinery and equipment, and finance where R&D has been less central to business strategy than in many other industries. …  About 50% of Canada’s industrial R&D spending is in high-tech sectors (including industries such as ICT, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and automotive) compared with the G7 average of 80%. Canadian Business Enterprise Expenditures on R&D (BERD) intensity is also below the OECD average in these sectors. In contrast, Canadian investment in low and medium-low tech sectors is substantially higher than the G7 average. Canada’s spending reflects both its long-standing industrial structure and patterns of economic activity.

R&D investment patterns in Canada appear to be evolving in response to global and domestic shifts. While small and medium-sized enterprises continue to perform a greater share of industrial R&D in Canada than in the United States, between 2009 and 2013, there was a shift in R&D from smaller to larger firms. Canada is an increasingly attractive place to conduct R&D. Investment by foreign-controlled firms in Canada has increased to more than 35% of total R&D investment, with the United States accounting for more than half of that. [emphasis mine]  Multinational enterprises seem to be increasingly locating some of their R&D operations outside their country of ownership, possibly to gain proximity to superior talent. Increasing foreign-controlled R&D, however, also could signal a long-term strategic loss of control over intellectual property (IP) developed in this country, ultimately undermining the government’s efforts to support high-growth firms as they scale up. [pp. xxii-xxiii Print; pp. 24-25 PDF]

Canada has been known as a ‘branch plant’ economy for decades. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it means that companies from other countries come here, open up a branch and that’s how we get our jobs as we don’t have all that many large companies here. Increasingly, multinationals are locating R&D shops here.

While our small to medium size companies fund industrial R&D, it’s large companies (multinationals) which can afford long-term and serious investment in R&D. Luckily for companies from other countries, we have a well-educated population of people looking for jobs.

In 2017, we opened the door more widely so we can scoop up talented researchers and scientists from other countries, from a June 14, 2017 article by Beckie Smith for The PIE News,

Universities have welcomed the inclusion of the work permit exemption for academic stays of up to 120 days in the strategy, which also introduces expedited visa processing for some highly skilled professions.

Foreign researchers working on projects at a publicly funded degree-granting institution or affiliated research institution will be eligible for one 120-day stay in Canada every 12 months.

And universities will also be able to access a dedicated service channel that will support employers and provide guidance on visa applications for foreign talent.

The Global Skills Strategy, which came into force on June 12 [2017], aims to boost the Canadian economy by filling skills gaps with international talent.

As well as the short term work permit exemption, the Global Skills Strategy aims to make it easier for employers to recruit highly skilled workers in certain fields such as computer engineering.

“Employers that are making plans for job-creating investments in Canada will often need an experienced leader, dynamic researcher or an innovator with unique skills not readily available in Canada to make that investment happen,” said Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“The Global Skills Strategy aims to give those employers confidence that when they need to hire from abroad, they’ll have faster, more reliable access to top talent.”

Coincidentally, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. have announced, in 2017, new jobs and new offices in Canadian cities. There’s a also Chinese multinational telecom company Huawei Canada which has enjoyed success in Canada and continues to invest here (from a Jan. 19, 2018 article about security concerns by Matthew Braga for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news,

For the past decade, Chinese tech company Huawei has found no shortage of success in Canada. Its equipment is used in telecommunications infrastructure run by the country’s major carriers, and some have sold Huawei’s phones.

The company has struck up partnerships with Canadian universities, and say it is investing more than half a billion dollars in researching next generation cellular networks here. [emphasis mine]

While I’m not thrilled about using patents as an indicator of progress, this is interesting to note (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada produces about 1% of global patents, ranking 18th in the world. It lags further behind in trademark (34th) and design applications (34th). Despite relatively weak performance overall in patents, Canada excels in some technical fields such as Civil Engineering, Digital Communication, Other Special Machines, Computer Technology, and Telecommunications. [emphases mine] Canada is a net exporter of patents, which signals the R&D strength of some technology industries. It may also reflect increasing R&D investment by foreign-controlled firms. [emphasis mine] [p. xxiii Print; p. 25 PDF]

Getting back to my point, we don’t have large companies here. In fact, the dream for most of our high tech startups is to build up the company so it’s attractive to buyers, sell, and retire (hopefully before the age of 40). Strangely, the expert panel doesn’t seem to share my insight into this matter,

Canada’s combination of high performance in measures of research output and impact, and low performance on measures of industrial R&D investment and innovation (e.g., subpar productivity growth), continue to be viewed as a paradox, leading to the hypothesis that barriers are impeding the flow of Canada’s research achievements into commercial applications. The Panel’s analysis suggests the need for a more nuanced view. The process of transforming research into innovation and wealth creation is a complex multifaceted process, making it difficult to point to any definitive cause of Canada’s deficit in R&D investment and productivity growth. Based on the Panel’s interpretation of the evidence, Canada is a highly innovative nation, but significant barriers prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation. The available evidence does point to a number of important contributing factors that are analyzed in this report. Figure 5 represents the relationships between R&D, innovation, and wealth creation.

The Panel concluded that many factors commonly identified as points of concern do not adequately explain the overall weakness in Canada’s innovation performance compared with other countries. [emphasis mine] Academia-business linkages appear relatively robust in quantitative terms given the extent of cross-sectoral R&D funding and increasing academia-industry partnerships, though the volume of academia-industry interactions does not indicate the nature or the quality of that interaction, nor the extent to which firms are capitalizing on the research conducted and the resulting IP. The educational system is high performing by international standards and there does not appear to be a widespread lack of researchers or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. IP policies differ across universities and are unlikely to explain a divergence in research commercialization activity between Canadian and U.S. institutions, though Canadian universities and governments could do more to help Canadian firms access university IP and compete in IP management and strategy. Venture capital availability in Canada has improved dramatically in recent years and is now competitive internationally, though still overshadowed by Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups and start-up ecosystems are also flourishing in many sectors and regions, demonstrating their ability to build on research advances to develop and deliver innovative products and services.

You’ll note there’s no mention of a cultural issue where start-ups are designed for sale as soon as possible and this isn’t new. Years ago, there was an accounting firm that published a series of historical maps (the last one I saw was in 2005) of technology companies in the Vancouver region. Technology companies were being developed and sold to large foreign companies from the 19th century to present day.

Part 2

Emergence in Toronto and Ottawa and brains in Vancouver (Canada): three April 2018 events

April 2018 is shaping up to be quite the month where art/sci events are concerned. I just published a March 27, 2018 posting titled ‘Curiosity collides with the quantum and with the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada in Vancouver (Canada)‘ and I’ve now received news about more happenings in Toronto and Ottawa.  Plus, there’s a science-themed meeting organized by ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers &; Professionals in Western Canada) featuring brains and brain imaging in Vancouver.

Toronto’s and Ottawa’s Emergence

There’s an art/sci exhibit opening, from a March 27, 2018 Art/Sci Salon announcement (received via email),

You are invited!

FaceBook event:

The Oakwood Village Library and Arts Centre event:

341 Oakwood Avenue, Toronto, ON  M6E 2W1

I check the library webpage listed in the above and found this artist’s statement,

Artist / Scientist Statement [Stephen Morris]

I am interested in self-organized, emergent patterns and textures. I make images of patterns both from the natural world and of experiments in my laboratory in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto. Patterns naturally attract casual attention but are also the subject of serious scientific research. Some things just evolve all by themselves into strikingly regular shapes and textures. Why? These shapes emerge spontaneously from a dynamic process of growing, folding, cracking, wrinkling, branching, flowing and other kinds of morphological development. My photos are informed by the scientific aesthetic of nonlinear physics, and celebrate the subtle interplay of order and complexity in emergent patterns. They are a kind of “Scientific Folk Art” of the science of Emergence.

While the official opening is April 5, 2018, the event itself runs from April 1 – 30, 2018.

Next, there’s another March 27, 2018 announcement (received via email) from the Art/Sci Salon but this one concerns a series of talks about ’emergence’, Note: Some of the event information was a little difficult to decipher so I’ve added a note to the relevant section).

What is Emergent Form?

Nature teems with self-organized forms that seem to spring spontaneously from the smooth background of things, by mechanisms that are not always apparent. Think of rippled sand on a beach or regular stripes in the clouds.  Plants, insects and animals exhibit spirals and spots and stripes in an exuberant riot of colours.  Fluid flows in amazingly regular swirls and eddies.  The emergence of form is ubiquitous, and presents a challenge and an inspiration to both artists and scientists. In mathematics, patterns appear as solutions of the nonlinear partial differential equations in the continuum limit of classical physics, chemistry and biology. In the arts and humanities, “emergent form” addresses the entangled ways in which humans, plants animals, microorganisms inevitably co-exist in the universe; the way that human intervention and natural transformation can generate new landscapes and new forms of life.

With Emergent Form, we want to question the idea of a fixed world.

For us, Emergent Form is not just a series of natural and human phenomena too complicated to understand, measure or predict, but also a concept to help us identify ways in which we can come to term with, and embrace their complexity as a source of inspiration.

Join us in Toronto and Ottawa for a series of interdisciplinary discussions, performances and exhibitions on Emergent Form on Apr 10, 11, 12 (Toronto) and Apr. 14 [2018] (Ottawa).

This series is the result of a collaboration among several parties. Each event of the series is different and has its dedicated RSVP 

Tue. Apr 10 The Fields Institute, 222 College Street

Emergent form: an interdisciplinary concept 6:00-8:00 pm Pier Luigi Capucci, Accademia di Belle Arti Urbino. Founder and director, Noemalab*, Charles Sowers, Independent artist and exhibit designer, the Exploratorium, Stephen Morris, Professor of of Physics University of Toronto, Ron Wild, smART Maps

CLICK HERE FOR MORE AND TO RSVP

Wed. Apr 11 The Fields Institute6:00-8:00 pm

Anatomy of an Interconnected SystemA Performative Lecture with Margherita Pevere, Aalto University, Helsinki

CLICK HERE FOR MORE AND TO RSVP

Thu. Apr 12 (Note: I believe that from 5 – 6 pm, you’re invited to see Pevere’s exhibit and then proceed to Luella Massey Studio Theatre for performances)

5:00 pm  Cabinets in the Koffler Student Centre [I believe this is at the University of Toronto] Anatomy of an Interconnected System An exhibition by Margherita Pevere

6:00 pm Luella Massey Studio Theatre, 4 Glen Morris Ave., Toronto biopoetriX – conFiGURing AI

6:00-8:00 pm Performance: 

6:00pm Performance “Corpus Nil. A Ritual of Birth for a Modified Body” conceived and performed by Marco Donnarumma

6.30pm LAB dance: Blitz media posters on labs in the arts, sciences and engineering

7.10pm Panel: Performing AI, hybrid media and humans in/as technologyMarco Donnarumma, Doug van Nort (Dispersion Lab, York U.), Jane Tingley (Stratford User Research & Gameful Experiences Lab –SURGE-, U of Waterloo), Angela Schoellig (Dynamic Systems Lab, U of T)

Panel animators: Antje Budde (Digital Dramaturgy Lab) and Roberta Buiani (ArtSci Salon)

8.15pm Reception at the Italian Cultural Institute, 496 Huron St, Toronto

CLICK HERE FOR MORE AND TO RSVP

Ottawa. Sat. Apr. 14 National Arts Centre, 1 Elgin Street11:00 am-1:00 pm

Emergent Form and complex phenomenaA creative panel discussion and surprise demonstrationsWith Pier Luigi Capucci, Margherita Pevere, Marco Donnarumma, Stephen Morris

CLICK HERE FOR MORE AND TO RSVP

This event would not be possible without the support of The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Science, The Italian Embassy, the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto, the Digital Dramaturgy Lab, and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. Many thanks to our community partner BYOR (Bring your own Robot)

I wonder if some of the funding from Italy is in support of Italian Research in World Day. This is the inaugural year for the event, which will be held annually on April 15.

Vancouver’s brains

The Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada (ARPICO) is hosting an event in Vancouver (from a March 22, 2018 ARICO announcement received via email),

Our second speaking event of the year, in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver, has been scheduled for Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 at the Roundhouse Community Centre. Professor Vesna Sossi’s talk will be examining how positron emission tomography (PET) imaging has contributed to better understanding of the brain function and disease with particular focus on Parkinson’s disease. You can read a summary of Prof. Sossi’s lecture as well as her short professional biography at the bottom of this message.

This event is organized in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver to celebrate the newly instituted Italian Research in the World Day, as part of the Piano Straordinario “Vivere all’Italiana” – Giornata della ricerca Italiana nel mondo. You can read more on our website event page.

We look forward to seeing everyone there.

Please register for the event by visiting the EventBrite link or RSVPing to info@arpico.ca.

The evening agenda is as follows:

  • 6:45 pm – Doors Open
  • 7:00 pm – Lecture by Prof. Vesna Sossi
  • ~8:00 pm – Q & A Period
  • Mingling & Refreshments until about 9:30 pm

If you have not yet RSVP’d, please do so on our EventBrite page.

Further details are also available at arpico.ca, our facebook page, and Eventbrite.


Imaging: A Window into the Brain

Brain illness, comprising neurological disorders, mental illness and addiction, is considered the major health challenge in the 21st century with a socio-economic cost greater than cancer and cardiovascular disease combined. There are at least three unique challenges hampering brain disease management: relative inaccessibility, disease onset often preceding the onset of clinical symptoms by many years and overlap between clinical and pathological symptoms that makes accurate disease identification often difficult. This talk will give examples of how positron emission tomography (PET) imaging has contributed to better understanding of the brain function and disease with particular focus on Parkinson’s disease. Emphasis will be placed on the interplay between scientific discoveries and instrumentation and data analysis development as exemplified by the current understanding of the brain function as comprised by interactions between connectivity networks and neurochemistry and advancement in multi-modal imaging such as simultaneous PET and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Vesna Sossi is a Professor in the University of British Columbia (UBC) Physics and Astronomy Department and at the UBC Djavad Mowafaghian Center for Brain Health. She directs the UBC Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging centre, which is known for its use of imaging as applied to neurodegeneration with emphasis on Parkinson’s disease. Her main areas of interest comprise development of imaging methods to enhance the investigation of neurochemical mechanisms that lead to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and mechanisms that contribute to treatment-related complications. She uses PET imaging to explore how alterations of the different neurotransmitter systems contribute to different trajectories of disease progression. Her other areas of interest are PET image analysis, instrumentation and multi-modal, multi-parameter data analysis. She published more than 180 peer review papers, is funded by several granting agencies, including the Michael J Fox Foundation, and sits on several national and international review panels.


WHEN: Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 at 7:00pm (doors open at 6:45pm)
WHERE: Roundhouse Community Centre, Room B – 181 Roundhouse Mews, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2W3
RSVP: Please RSVP at EventBrite (https://imaging-a-window-into-the-brain.eventbrite.ca) or email info@arpico.ca


Tickets are Needed

  • Tickets are FREE, but all individuals are requested to obtain “free-admission” tickets on EventBrite site due to limited seating at the venue. Organizers need accurate registration numbers to manage wait lists and prepare name tags.
  • All ARPICO events are 100% staffed by volunteer organizers and helpers, however, room rental, stationery, and guest refreshments are costs incurred and underwritten by members of ARPICO. Therefore to be fair, all audience participants are asked to donate to the best of their ability at the door or via EventBrite to “help” defray costs of the event.

You can find directions for the Roundhouse Community Centre here

I have one idle question. What’s going to happen these groups if Canadians change their use of  Facebook or abandon the platform as they are threatening to do in the face of Cambridge Analytica’s use of their data? A March 25, 2018 article on huffingtonpost.ca outlines the latest about Canadians’ reaction to the Cambridge Analytical news according to an Angus Reid poll,

A survey by Angus Reid Institute suggests 73 per cent of Canadian Facebook users say they will make changes, while 27 per cent say it will be “business as usual.”

Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) said they would use Facebook less in the future, and 41 per cent of users said they would check and/or change their privacy settings.

The survey also found that one in 10 say they plan to abandon the platform, at least temporarily.

Facebook has been under fire for its ability to protect user privacy after Cambridge Analytica was accused of lifting the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission.

There you have it.

*Well, a bit more information about one of the “Emergent’ speakers was received in an April 4, 2018 ArtSci Salon email announcement,

Do make sure to check out Pier Luigi Capucci’s EU-based (but with international breadth) Noemalab platform. https://noemalab.eu/ since the mid-nineties, this platform has been an important node of information for New Media Art and the relation between the arts and science.

noemalab’s blog regularly hosts reviews of events and conferences occurring around the world, including  the Subtle Technologies Festival between 2007 and 2014. you can search its archives here http://blogs.noemalab.eu/

Capucci has been writing several reflections on emergent forms of Life and theorized what he called the “third life”. See a recent essay https://noemalab.eu/memo/events/evolutionary-creativity-the-inner-life-and-meaning-of-art/ here is a picture which I would love him to explain during Emergent Form. Intrigued? come listen to him!

Mussels to muscles for biocompatible fibres

Mussels and barnacles in the intertidal near Newquay, Cornwall, England.
Wilson44691 at English Wikipedia – Photograph taken by Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster

I love puns and word play so I was happy to see this in a June 9, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Rice University chemists can thank the mussel for putting the muscle into their new macroscale scaffold fibers.

A June 9, 2017 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details about the research,

The Rice lab of chemist Jeffrey Hartgerink had already figured out how to make biocompatible nanofibers out of synthetic peptides. In new work, the lab is using an amino acid found in the sticky feet of mussels to make those fibers line up into strong hydrogel strings.

Hartgerink and Rice graduate student I-Che Li introduced their room-temperature method this month in an open-access paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The hydrogel strings can be picked up and moved with tweezers, and Li said he expects they will help labs gain better control over the growth of cell cultures.

“Usually when cells grow on a surface, they spread randomly,” he said. “There are a lot of biomaterials we want to grow in a specific direction. With the hydrogel scaffold aligned, we can expect cells to grow the way we want them to. One example would be neuron cells, which we want to grow head-to-tail to aid nerve regeneration.

“Basically, this could allow us to direct cell growth from here to there,” he said. “That’s why this material is so exciting.”

In previous research Hartgerink’s lab had developed synthetic hydrogels that could be injected into the body to serve as scaffolds for tissue growth. The hydrogels contained hydrophobic peptides that self-assembled into fibers about 6 nanometers wide and up to several microns long. However, because the fibers did not interact with one other, they generally appeared in microscope images as a tangled mass.

Experiments showed the fibers could be coaxed into alignment with the application of shear forces, in the same way that playing cards are aligned during shuffling by pushing on both the top and bottom of the deck.

Hartgerink and Li decided to try pushing the fibers through a needle to force them into alignment, a process that would be easier if the material was water soluble. So they added a chain of amino acids known as DOPA to the sides of the fibers to allow them to remain water-soluble in the syringe, Li said.

DOPA — short for 3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine — is the compound that lets mussels stick to just about anything. Hartgerink and Li found that the combination of DOPA and shear stress from passing through the needle prompted the fibers to form visible, rope-like bundles.

They also found that DOPA promoted chemical cross-linking reactions that helped the bundles hold their shape. “DOPA is really sensitive to oxidizing agents,” Li said. “Even exposing DOPA to air oxidizes it, and that aids in cross-linking the fibers.”

As a bonus, the aligned fibers also proved to have a curious and useful optical property called “uniform birefringence,” or double-refraction. Li said this could allow researchers to use polarized light to see exactly where the aligned fibers are, even if they’re covered by cells.

“This will be an important technique for us to make sure of the long-range order of fiber alignment when we are testing directed cell growth,” he said.

The researchers expect the aligned fibers can be used for macroscale medical applications but with nanoscale control over the structures.

“Self-assembly is basically the ability of a molecule to make ordered structure from chaos, and what I-Che has done is push this organization to a new level with his aligned strings,” said Hartgerink, a professor of chemistry and of bioengineering. “With this material, we are excited to see if we can impose this organization onto the growth of cells that interact with it.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Covalent Capture of Aligned Self-Assembling Nanofibers by I-Che Li and Jeffrey D. Hartgerink. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.7b04655 Publication Date (Web): June 5, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

Antibiotic synthetic spider silk

I have a couple of questions, what is ‘click’ chemistry and how does a chance meeting lead to a five-year, interdisciplinary research project on synthetic spider silk? From a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A chance meeting between a spider expert and a chemist has led to the development of antibiotic synthetic spider silk.

After five years’ work an interdisciplinary team of scientists at The University of Nottingham has developed a technique to produce chemically functionalised spider silk that can be tailored to applications used in drug delivery, regenerative medicine and wound healing.

The Nottingham research team has shown for the first time how ‘click-chemistry’ can be used to attach molecules, such as antibiotics or fluorescent dyes, to artificially produced spider silk synthesised by E.coli bacteria. The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is published today in the online journal Advanced Materials.

A Jan. 3, 2016 University of Nottingham press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a few more details about ‘click’ chemistry (not enough for me) and more information about the research,

The chosen molecules can be ‘clicked’ into place in soluble silk protein before it has been turned into fibres, or after the fibres have been formed. This means that the process can be easily controlled and more than one type of molecule can be used to ‘decorate’ individual silk strands.

Nottingham breakthrough

In a laboratory in the Centre of Biomolecular Sciences, Professor Neil Thomas from the School of Chemistry in collaboration with Dr Sara Goodacre from the School of Life Sciences, has led a team of BBSRC DTP-funded PhD students starting with David Harvey who was then joined by Victor Tudorica, Leah Ashley and Tom Coekin. They have developed and diversified this new approach to functionalising ‘recombinant’ — artificial — spider silk with a wide range of small molecules.

They have shown that when these ‘silk’ fibres are ‘decorated’ with the antibiotic levofloxacin it is slowly released from the silk, retaining its anti-bacterial activity for at least five days.

Neil Thomas, a Professor of Medicinal and Biological Chemistry, said: “Our technique allows the rapid generation of biocompatible, mono or multi-functionalised silk structures for use in a wide range of applications. These will be particularly useful in the fields of tissue engineering and biomedicine.”

Remarkable qualities of spider silk

Spider silk is strong, biocompatible and biodegradable. It is a protein-based material that does not appear to cause a strong immune, allergic or inflammatory reaction. With the recent development of recombinant spider silk, the race has been on to find ways of harnessing its remarkable qualities.

The Nottingham research team has shown that their technique can be used to create a biodegradable mesh which can do two jobs at once. It can replace the extra cellular matrix that our own cells generate, to accelerate growth of the new tissue. It can also be used for the slow release of antibiotics.

Professor Thomas said: “There is the possibility of using the silk in advanced dressings for the treatment of slow-healing wounds such as diabetic ulcers. Using our technique infection could be prevented over weeks or months by the controlled release of antibiotics. At the same time tissue regeneration is accelerated by silk fibres functioning as a temporary scaffold before being biodegraded.”

The medicinal properties of spider silk recognised for centuries.

The medicinal properties of spider silk have been recognised for centuries but not clearly understood. The Greeks and Romans treated wounded soldiers with spider webs to stop bleeding. It is said that soldiers would use a combination of honey and vinegar to clean deep wounds and then cover the whole thing with balled-up spider webs.

There is even a mention in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good master cobweb,” the character ‘Bottom’ said. “If I cut my finger, I shall make bold of you.”

The press release goes on to describe the genesis of the project and how this multidisciplinary team was formed in more detail,

The idea came together at a discipline bridging university ‘sandpit’ meeting five years ago. Dr Goodacre says her chance meeting at that event with Professor Thomas proved to be one of the most productive afternoons of her career.

Dr Goodacre, who heads up the SpiderLab in the School of Life Sciences, said: “I got up at that meeting and showed the audience a picture of some spider silk. I said ‘I want to understand how this silk works, and then make some.’

“At the end of the session Neil came up to me and said ‘I think my group could make that.’ He also suggested that there might be more interesting ‘tweaks’ one could make so that the silk could be ‘decorated’ with different, useful, compounds either permanently or which could be released over time due to a change in the acidity of the environment.”

The approach required the production of the silk proteins in a bacterium where an amino acid not normally found in proteins was included. This amino acid contained an azide group which is widely used in ‘click’ reactions that only occur at that position in the protein. It was an approach that no-one had used before with spider silk — but the big question was — would it work?

Dr Goodacre said: “It was the start of a fascinating adventure that saw a postdoc undertake a very preliminary study to construct the synthetic silks. He was a former SpiderLab PhD student who had previously worked with our tarantulas. Thanks to his ground work we showed we could produce the silk proteins in bacteria. We were then joined by David Harvey, a new PhD student, who not only made the silk fibres, incorporating the unusual amino acid, but also decorated it and demonstrated its antibiotic activity. He has since extended those first ideas far beyond what we had thought might be possible.”

David Harvey’s work is described in this paper but Professor Thomas and Dr Goodacre say this is just the start. There are other joint SpiderLab/Thomas lab students working on uses for this technology in the hope of developing it further.

David Harvey, the lead author on this their first paper, has just been awarded his PhD and is now a postdoctoral researcher on a BBSRC follow-on grant so is still at the heart of the research. His current work is focused on driving the functionalised spider silk technology towards commercial application in wound healing and tissue regeneration.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Antibiotic Spider Silk: Site-Specific Functionalization of Recombinant Spider Silk Using “Click” Chemistry by David Harvey, Philip Bardelang, Sara L. Goodacre, Alan Cockayne, and Neil R. Thomas. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201604245 Version of Record online: 28 DEC 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

I imagine Mr. Cockayne’s name has led to much teasing over the years. People who have names with that kind of potential tend to either change them or double down and refuse to compromise.

“One minus one equals zero” has been disproved

Two mirror-image molecules can be optically active according to an April 27, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

In 1848, Louis Pasteur showed that molecules that are mirror images of each other had exactly opposite rotations of light. When mixed in solution, they cancel the effects of the other, and no rotation of light is observed. Now, a research team has demonstrated that a mixture of mirror-image molecules crystallized in the solid state can be optically active.

An April 26, 2016 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In the world of chemistry, one minus one almost always equals zero.

But new research from Northwestern University and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France shows that is not always the case. And the discovery will change scientists’ understanding of mirror-image molecules and their optical activity.

Now, Northwestern’s Kenneth R. Poeppelmeier and his research team are the first to demonstrate that a mixture of mirror-image molecules crystallized in the solid state can be optically active. The scientists first designed and made the materials and then measured their optical properties.

“In our case, one minus one does not always equal zero,” said first author Romain Gautier of CNRS. “This discovery will change scientists’ understanding of these molecules, and new applications could emerge from this observation.”

The property of rotating light, which has been known for more than two centuries to exist in many molecules, already has many applications in medicine, electronics, lasers and display devices.

“The phenomenon of optical activity can occur in a mixture of mirror-image molecules, and now we’ve measured it,” said Poeppelmeier, a Morrison Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “This is an important experiment.”

Although this phenomenon has been predicted for a long time, no one — until now — had created such a racemic mixture (a combination of equal amounts of mirror-image molecules) and measured the optical activity.

“How do you deliberately create these materials?” Poeppelmeier said. “That’s what excites me as a chemist.” He and Gautier painstakingly designed the material, using one of four possible solid-state arrangements known to exhibit circular dichroism (the ability to absorb differently the “rotated” light).

Next, Richard P. Van Duyne, a Morrison Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern, and graduate student Jordan M. Klingsporn measured the material’s optical activity, finding that mirror-image molecules are active when arranged in specific orientations in the solid state.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Optical activity from racemates by Romain Gautier, Jordan M. Klingsporn, Richard P. Van Duyne, & Kenneth R. Poeppelmeier. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4628 Published online 18 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Making perfume molecules last longer

If the thought of having expensive perfume last longer is appealing then this research will pique your interest. From a Feb. 17, 2016 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, also on EurekAlert, (Note: Links have been removed),

Fragrances can be powerful. They can sooth or revitalize, evoke the forest or sea, and remind us of the past. To capture them, manufacturers infuse scents into products from toilet bowl cleaners to luxury perfumes. But once released from a bottle, fragrances evaporate quickly. Now researchers report in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces a new way to encapsulate fragrance molecules to make a product’s scent last.

The challenge with creating long-lasting fragrances is that aroma molecules tend to be small and volatile. That means they can sneak through barriers easily and disperse quickly. Some methods have been developed to prevent fragrance molecules from hastily escaping from a spritz of perfume or a dollop of lotion. For example, one process slows down the molecules by packaging them in microcapsules. But the technique is inefficient and doesn’t control for shell size, thickness or structure, which makes it harder to work with. David A. Weitz and colleagues wanted to figure out a new strategy using microfluidic and bulk emulsification to encapsulate fragrances.

First, to get a homogeneous mixture of water and α-pinene molecules — found in oils from pine trees and rosemary — the researchers emulsified them (think blending together two ingredients like oil and vinegar that normally separate). Pumping the emulsion into tiny glass microfluidic tubes created uniform microcapsules. Testing showed that the capsules successfully slowed the release of α-pinene. In addition to its use in the fragrance industry, the researchers say the technique could have applications in drug delivery or other areas.

The authors acknowledge funding from Procter & Gamble Co., the National Science Foundation, the Harvard Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Encapsulation and Enhanced Retention of Fragrance in Polymer Microcapsules by Hyomin Lee, Chang-Hyung Choi, Alireza Abbaspourrad, Chris Wesner, Marco Caggioni, Taotao Zhu, and David A. Weitz. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2016, 8 (6), pp 4007–4013 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b11351 Publication Date (Web): January 22, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Green tech with single atom platinum catalyst?

There’s something mind boggling to me about the notion of a single atom catalyst. Luckily, an Oct. 5, 2015 news item on Nanowerk describes the research (Note: A link has been removed),

A new generation of platinum-copper catalysts that require very low concentrations of platinum in the form of individual atoms to cleanly and cheaply perform important chemical reactions is reported today by Tufts University researchers in the journal Nature Communications (“Selective hydrogenation of butadiene on platinum copper alloys at the single atom limit”).

An Oct. 9, 2015 Tufts University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the nature of the problem the researchers were trying to resolve and their solution,

Platinum is used as a catalyst in fuel cells, in automobile converters and in the chemical industry because of its remarkable ability to facilitate a wide range of chemical reactions. However, its future potential uses are significantly limited by scarcity and cost, as well as the fact that platinum readily binds with carbon monoxide, which “poisons” the desired reactions, for example in polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which are the leading contenders for small-scale and mobile power generation not based on batteries or combustion engines.

The Tufts researchers discovered that dispersing individual, isolated platinum atoms in much less costly copper surfaces can create a highly effective and cost-efficient catalyst for the selective hydrogenation of 1,3 butadiene, a chemical produced by steam cracking of naphtha or by catalytic cracking of gas oil. Butadiene is an impurity in propene streams that must be removed from the stream through hydrogenation in order to facilitate downstream polymer production. The current industrial catalyst for butadiene hydrogenation uses palladium and silver.

Like Sugar in Coffee

Copper, while a relatively cheap metal, is not nearly as catalytically powerful as platinum, noted Professor of Chemistry Charles Sykes, Ph.D., one of the senior authors on the paper. “We wanted to find a way to improve its performance.”

The researchers first conducted surface science experiments to study precisely how platinum and copper metals mix. “We were excited to find that the platinum metal dissolved in copper, just like sugar in hot coffee, all the way down to single atoms. We call such materials single atom alloys,” said Sykes.

The Tufts chemists used a specialized low temperature scanning tunneling microscope to visualize the single platinum atoms and their interaction with hydrogen. “We found that even at temperatures as low as minus 300 degrees F these platinum atoms were capable of splitting hydrogen molecules into atoms, indicating that the platinum atoms would be very good at activating hydrogen for a chemical reaction,” Sykes said.

With that knowledge, Sykes and his fellow chemists turned to long-time Tufts collaborator Maria Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, Ph.D., the Robert and Marcy Haber Endowed Professor in Energy Sustainability at the School of Engineering, to determine which hydrogenation reaction would be most significant for industrial applications. The answer, she said, was butadiene.

The model catalyst performed effectively for that reaction in vacuum conditions in the laboratory, so Flytzani-Stephanopoulos’s team took the study to the next level. They synthesized small quantities of realistic catalysts, such as platinum-copper single atom alloy nanoparticles supported on an alumina substrate, and then tested them under industrial pressure and temperatures.

“To our delight, these catalysts worked very well and their performance was steady for many days,” said Flytzani-Stephanopoulos. “While we had previously shown that palladium would do related reactions in a closed reactor system, this work with platinum is our first demonstration of operation in a flow reactor at industrially relevant conditions. We believe this approach is also applicable to other precious metals if added as minority components in copper.”

Further, the researchers found that the reaction actually became less efficient when they used more platinum, because clusters of platinum atoms have inferior selectivity compared with individual atoms. “In this case, less is more,” said Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, “which is a very good thing.”

Environmental Benefits

Because platinum is at the center of many clean energy and green chemicals production technologies, such as fuel cells, catalytic converters, and value-added chemicals from bio-renewable feedstocks, the new, less expensive platinum-copper catalysts could facilitate broader adoption of such environmentally friendly devices and processes, she added.

The news release goes on to describe this cross-disciplinary partnership,

The work is the latest fruit from a long cross-disciplinary partnership between Sykes and Flytzani-Stephanopoulos.

“Maria and I met more than seven years ago and talked regularly about how to combine our fairly different fields of research into an effective collaboration across the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering,” said Sykes. “I had a state-of-the-art microscope that could see and manipulate atoms and molecules, and I wanted to use its unique capabilities to gain insight into industrially important chemical reactions. In the early 2000s, Maria’s group had pioneered the single-atom approach for metals anchored on oxide supports as the exclusive active sites for the water-gas shift reaction to upgrade hydrogen streams for fuel cell use. Catalyst design know-how already existed in her lab. In retrospect, it seems obvious that combining forces would be a ‘natural’ development. Together we embarked on a new direction involving single atom alloys as catalysts for selective hydrogenation reactions. Our microscope was uniquely suited for characterizing the atomic composition of surfaces. We got funding from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy and the Tufts Collaborates initiative to pursue this new area of research.”

Sykes and Flytzani-Stephanopoulos have used this approach to design a variety of single atom alloy catalysts that have, in the last two years, sparked international interest.

“Traditionally catalyst development happens by trial and error and screening many materials,” said Flytzani-Stephanopoulos. “In this study we took a fundamental approach to understanding the atomic scale structure and properties of single atom alloy surfaces and then applied this knowledge to develop a working catalyst. Armed with this knowledge, we are now ready to compare the stability of these single atom alloy catalysts to single atom catalysts supported on various oxide or carbon surfaces. This may give us very useful criteria for industrial catalyst design.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Selective hydrogenation of 1,3-butadiene on platinum–copper alloys at the single-atom limit by Felicia R. Lucci, Jilei Liu, Matthew D. Marcinkowski, Ming Yang, Lawrence F. Allard, Maria Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, & E. Charles H. Sykes. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8550 doi:10.1038/ncomms9550 Published 09 October 2015

This is an open access paper.